How do your genetics affect your voice?

I was watching this video with Dr Peter Attia and James Clear this week. The video is all about the genetics’ role in helping someone to understand how best to leverage what they have. You can watch it below if your interest is piqued!

The chief point of this video is that we all have inherent advantages and limitations conferred on us by our genetic makeup. Where a lot of people get hung up on limitations, these actually don’t make you ask “why bother to train”, they instead helpfully tell you WHERE to train and HOW to maximise your training.

The key take-away I want you know up front, is that some people are luckier than others when it comes to the voice they are born with. Let’s have a look at why.

Point 1: Your voice isn’t like other instruments

When I refer to “your instrument”, this can be a little bit misleading. Your voice is not a separate dedicated instrument like the guitar/piano. I have made many references to how it operates in a similar way (which is still true), but what it glosses over is that every part of your body used for your voice is primarily used for several other things. Your throat is used for breathing, swallowing, speaking. Your mouth and tongue are used for chewing, eating, breathing, smiling. Your larynx’s primary function is actually not making sound at all, but to stop things going into your lungs when swallowing.

As such, we have to view “our voice” as the interconnection of several other parts of our body, and not just a dedicated standalone instrument. Please do bear that in mind as we talk about “your instrument” in the rest of this article. Continue reading “How do your genetics affect your voice?”

If music is all about taste, is there such a thing as bad singing?

I think a lot about the topic of “taste“, specifically to do with art and music. I’ve had a few discussions with people on this topic, so I thought I’d flesh out my current thinking for those interested.

What is taste?

When it comes to musical taste, most will recognise how this phrase echoes our preferences in foods which we like to put in our mouths. In the same way, musical taste reflects our preferences as to which music we like to put into our ears.

The late great philosopher of aesthetics, Sir Roger Scruton, commented that the contemplation of art rarely has definitive answers, only more questions. He noted instead that time spent steeped in this topic led him – if not to answers – to a more precise and more articulate phrasing of the questions surrounding this topic. With this in mind…

Is it entirely subjective?

I think we can all recognise that taste has a strong subjective component to it. Hopefully we can agree that this is beyond dispute. But many often talk as if music and its relative goodness/badness is entirely subjective. So let’s consider this… Continue reading “If music is all about taste, is there such a thing as bad singing?”

What happens when you don’t practice for a while?

Most of you who exercise regularly will notice your fitness drops if you don’t exercise for a while. If you take a month off from running or cycling, you’ll notice that your cardiovascular facility will feel less responsive as you return to doing it.

Those of you who do the gym and lift weights will also notice that things don’t feel the same with time off. It’s a different sensation, but it has similarities.

But what about our voices? What happens to our voices when we don’t practice for a little while? How far off the mark can we end up?

The Good News

Fortunately, the voice isn’t as dependent on cardio as running, and it isn’t as dependent on muscular development as lifting weights. There are certainly muscles involved. There is contraction required, and there is air and cardiovascular ability involved. However, none of these things are as extreme as running or lifting weights.

With vocal training and development, it is far more to do with the fine motor control and co-ordination between all those factors than it is to do with any single one. Continue reading “What happens when you don’t practice for a while?”

How hard should it feel to sing well?

Here’s a question for you: How hard should singing feel?

Particularly when working on our voices, having some idea of the hallmarks of “doing it right” would be helpful. How difficult should it feel to do? Should it feel really physically difficult? Or when we get better, should it feel devoid of effort? If it’s somewhere in between, how can we tell?

It’s a tricky one, that’s for certain. I certainly can’t give you a perfect and definitive answer. Nevertheless, I’ve got a few illustrations that may help you explore the complexity of answering this question.

Learning to drive

Take learning to drive and to park a car. If you have to keep doing 17-point turns and endure repeated attempts to get your car into the space, that is typically a sign that you are not yet efficient or competent at that specific skill. Hitting the cars next to you is also a bad sign.

As we get better, we might find we can do it in just a few turns, or a few attempts. After years of driving, many find they can swing the car into tighter and tighter spaces from weirder and weirder angles, in one smooth move.

The hallmarks of “doing it right” with driving are fairly obvious from the outside and also as the driver. The metrics are visual and physical. We can tell that we got the car in the space, we can visually see it’s aligned, we can count how many attempts it took, etc. We can even recall whether or not we heard any scraping sounds as we parked up!

Consider our question
Is it physically hard to maneuver a car like this? Continue reading “How hard should it feel to sing well?”

Four Simple Steps to Not Sucking (or at least, getting past it)

I had a brief exchange with someone this week, where they told me they’d quit the gym. Now, I happen to like the gym, but that’s not why I’m telling this story. I’m sharing this story because it struck me as a perfect illustration for where so many people go wrong when it comes to sticking to any goal of self-improvement or skill acquisition.

The Illustration

When speaking with this person, they had joined for 6 months with the intention of doing several early morning sessions a week. By the end of that 6 month period, I know they were skipping more sessions than they were making. Then they quit. They said they had “given it their best shot“, but it “wasn’t for them“.

In trying to explain why they had quit, they felt it important to state “I’ve actually been doing more stuff outside, and I’ve just realised I’m more of an outdoors person, so that’s why I never got on with the gym“.

Benefit of the doubt
Look, let’s be reasonable: just because I like the gym, this doesn’t mean everyone will. I get that. It is also unquestionable that forcing oneself to do early morning sessions doesn’t always work for certain individuals. And at the end of the day, it’s also 100% their choice to go to the gym, or whatever activity is in question.

In this regard, it’s very easy to look at the situation as an outsider, not give it a second’s thought, accept their answer as perfectly reasonable and move on. But here’s what stuck in my mind about this conversation… Continue reading “Four Simple Steps to Not Sucking (or at least, getting past it)”

Changing an Alto into a Soprano

Last week I talked about tessitura, and aimed this at the discussion of changing a baritone into a tenor.

While the process in general is pretty similar for changing an alto into a soprano, it struck me that there are definite differences between the male and female instruments that are worth talking about.

In particular, many women who join choirs, or want to sign in a band/music group, often end up singing as a nominal bass, or believe themselves to be an alto. There are still further women who believe they have no bottom end to their voice and sing in a soprano range, but it is often very thin and wispy.

Let’s talk about three chief differences between training the male and female instruments, and why this makes such a difference in how it feels to be a male or female singer.

1. The Bottom End

We’ve talked about chest voice extensively. Briefly, it is the lowest register of any voice. In normal healthy voices, it is typically the range that most people speak in. As such, when you imagine a friend’s voice in your head, the quality you are likely hearing is their chest voice.

Everyone’s chest voice is unique in timbre, and evolves as they mature in age. I’ve talked about that extensively here and here. Continue reading “Changing an Alto into a Soprano”